The program’s highlight, fittingly titled “New Conversations,” showed us this dynamic especially clearly. This remarkable piece grew out of a collaboration between Brown and the Mexican-born pianist Arturo O’Farrill, the founder of the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance. The two artists met in Havana while working with the Cuban dance company Malpaso; they hit it off and began developing “New Conversations” during a residency at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
On the most obvious level, the conversation of the title is between Brown’s dancers and the musicians of O’Farrill’s ensemble, who share the stage. The piece began with the low growl of a tuba, like the voice of God, and the sense of being in the presence of otherworldly beings built as the dancers drifted onstage. They circled their shoulders and hips with liquid ease. But the undulating physical softness was fortified with muscular control; a dancer might come to an abrupt standstill or corkscrew around in a sudden twist.
The subtitle of this work is “Iron Meets Water,” a curious image that brings to mind rust and decay. But as the dance’s theme of flow and resistance developed, it was clear that Brown had in mind another view of oxidation, where something flowing and soft can defeat a seemingly invincible obstacle. An unspoken conversation grew among the dancers as they observed and echoed one another, trading new moves, countering with slight variations.
The music of the Arturo O’Farrill Ensemble was assertive and rolling, with an agitated flute taking over from the tuba. If at first the dancers seemed to float upon the music, moved by it, by the end they were inseparably joined to it. Music and dancers resolved into a unified whole.
It was a poetic and spiritually uplifting point, made gently, as is Brown’s style. The program’s closer, “Grace,” which Brown created for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater 20 years ago, tells a similar story of the spiritual power of dance. But Brown has more stories to tell: These two works of lush beauty bookended an excerpt from a darker piece from 2001, “Walking Out the Dark.” Here was the desperation of people trying to open up to one another in solos so emotionally driven, with arms thrown overhead and dancers flinging themselves on the floor, you could almost hear the shouts and feel their pain.
Brown’s nine dancers are among the best in the business, so good that they make his work look deceptively easy. But it’s not just the mechanics of the dancing bodies that appear effortless. It’s also the way Brown comments on contemporary society: our tendencies to wall ourselves off, or not, and how gentleness can move another person to open up more than rough insistence can. His work feels timeless and of the moment, all at once.